Monday, October 4, 2010

Order of the Phoenix

I actually finished "re-listening" to this three weeks ago, and just have not gotten around to writing my review. (Part of that was, honestly, my goal of making the second half of September "Non-Genre Fortnight," and thus wanting to hold off on this review until those books' reviews were written and posted. Which they have now done.)

Book 59: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807220290, 870 pages / 23 cds, Scholastic / Listening Library, $13.95 / $75.00

If I were hard-pressed to list the Potter books from favorite to l east favorite (understanding that even "least favorite" is still very much enjoyed), OotP would probably place 3rd from the top. PRISONER OF AZKABAN will always be my favorite, and I think GOBLET OF FIRE will always come in a close second. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS probably tie for third, with OotP just slightly edging out the series finale if push comes to shove.

That said, the book is still not perfect. Listening to Jim Dale perform it on cd, it becomes very apparent where the book slows down and almost terminally loses me: Hagrid's flashback. Please note that I'm not saying Hagrid's flashback is a waste of space: it is important that Harry & company learn where Hagrid has been, what he's been attempting to do both for Dumbledore and for his own purposes; it's important that we the readers know what Hagrid's been up to so that we understand just why it's so important that Dolores Umbridge not know what Hagrid's been up to. But still, for all the importance of that chapter -- it is slooooowww going even with the best of readers. I thought, when I first read the book, that it was my own problem, but listening to Jim Dale showed me that it's the chapter itself (and friends who are Potter fans have largely expressed the same problem). Thankfully, that's one of the few problems I have with the book.

Overall, despite the 870-page length, I find ORDER to be a tightly-plotted book that just keeps moving towards a conclusion we see coming long before Harry does. Even on my initial read of the book the week it was published, I could tell early on that Voldemort had figured out how to use his connection to Harry to manipulate our hero and knew that the trip to the Ministry was not going to end well. No, I did not (probably could not have) predict(ed) Sirius' death in the climactic scene; but I knew something horrible would happen. How could it not, with the tension and dread Rowling builds up in the preceding 700 pages? Of course, people had been predicting "an important character's" death for months before the book came out, and Rowling expertly teases us just before the halfway point with the near-death of Arthur Weasley. Harry never quite, in the books, comes to view Arthur as a father figure the way he does Sirius and Dumbledore, but Arthur's near death should have been the warning sign to all of us: in order for Harry to grow into the role prophecied for him at the end of the book, he needs to grow beyond what his father-figures can provide for him. Arthur, being not quite a father figure, survives his encounter with Nagini (and that wretched Muggle invention, "stitches!"). We should have known that Sirius and Dumbledore would not fare as well.

Rowling uses the animosity she's developed between Harry and Snape (as well as Snape and Sirius) to good advantage in propelling this story. Had Harry taken Occlumency lessons from just about anyone else, he might have been more successful. Had Snape been teaching the skill to just about anyone else, he might have come up with a better method of teaching it. (It's my opinion that Snape isn't actually a bad teacher, when he concentrates on his chosen subject(s). It's his mentoring side that is lacking, probably because he didn't have very good mentors when he was a kid. One wonders exactly where Dumbledore was during the school-days of the Marauders and "Snivellus.") And of course it is Snape's taunting of the house-bound Sirius that contributes, at least a little bit, to Sirius' willingly to chance being caught just to be out and doing something. (To be fair, it's also Sirius' nature -- Remus would never let Snape's taunting get to him, whereas Sirius just uses Snape's taunts to justify doing what he wants to do anyway.)

Rowling does an interesting thing with the Sirius/Harry relationship in this book: she allows the other characters to call Sirius and Harry on the dynamic that has developed between them. Molly Weasley is not the only character to point out that Sirius is trying to replace James and make up for all the years they didn't have together to get into trouble and raise hell. It makes me wonder if, once he was married, James became so much less of a wild-child that Sirius was already feeling the distance growing even before James and Lily were murdered. And Harry, of course, just wants a father who loves him so badly that he's willing to let Sirius egg him on to do the un-wise/un-safe thing -- the thought of disappointing Sirius pushes Harry to not really think through the consequences of his actions.

The revelation of not only the existence of the Prophecy but also its exact wording (as well as the revelation that now only two people in the world know that exact wording, since Sybil Trelawney apparently blacks out when she makes prophecies) is of course what the whole book leads to. Coming as it does after the emotional death of Sirius, it's almost an anti-climactic moment. Yes, yes, we know -- Harry is destined to face down Voldemort, and one has to kill the other. We sort of had that figured out once we realized Voldemort was the behind-the-scenes bad-guy of the first five books (he's barely seen in PHOENIX, despite being mentioned every other page, so he counts as "behind the scenes"). Again, it's an important moment, but it can't compete with the death of Sirius for sheer punch-in-the-guts power.

Voldemort may be behind-the-scenes, but Rowling's true gift to the readers in this book is the creation of a character who shows you don't have to be the Ultimate Evil to still be a menace. Dolores Umbridge, Senior Under-Secretary to the Minister of Magic, Hogwarts High Inquisitor and Defense Against the Dark Arts ... teacher is not the right word, is it? A woman who truly believes she is doing the right thing by setting Dementors on "out of control liar Harry Potter," by dumbing-down the curricula of the DADA class to "protect" the children as well as the Ministry, by inflicting bodily harm on her charges in the name of "discipline," Dolores is that every-day sort of evil that lurks in all of our lives: the horrid teacher, the petulant boss, the distant spouse. She is as big a threat to Harry's well-being as Voldemort. To me she is the scarier of the threats, because the last time I checked there were no Dark Wizards running around the real world, but there are hundreds of people just like Dolores Umbridge.

I could go on and on, as I could for just about any book in the Potter series, but I have to stop typing sometime and press "post." Final analysis: despite the occasional slow spot, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX pushes along at top speed, sprinkling some great character background and some great comedic moments in with a ton of tension and action. Well worth the read.

On the audiobook side, I do have one question that will probably never be answered: what made Jim Dale and his directors decide to give Bellatrix and Narcissa BLACK (married names: LeStrange and Malfoy) French accents? It seems clear in the books that Bella and Cissa grew up in England just as their cousins Sirius and Regulus did -- Bellatrix's French last name is her married name. Radolphus and Rabistan LeStrange should have the French accents, not Bellatrix.

(and one final note to those who disagreed with my stance that Hermione's House-Elf Crusade in GOBLET goes nowhere -- thank you for not pointing out just how much it bears on the action of PHOENIX and eventually PRINCE. Any one of you could have not-so-gently reminded me that Hermione continues her crusade in PHOENIX by leaving knitted caps all around the Gryffindor common room, a move I'd completely forgotten about. One of you did point out that Hermione's treatment of Kreacher is an outgrowth of her SPEW movement, but I'd forgotten just how much it plays into the center of this book.)

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